Unaccountably Biased
Has the Associated Press given up on straight news?

The American Spectator, September 2007

The Associated Press is not only the world's biggest wire service but one of the great institutions of American journalism. It was the brainchild of Moses Yale Beach, the second publisher of the New York Sun, as a January 2006 AP report describes:

In May 1846, Beach offered to share news from the U.S. war with Mexico with rival newspapers. The resulting agreement formed the basis for cooperative news gathering by telegraph just as Samuel F. B. Morse's revolutionary invention began a swift expansion throughout the country, linking New York to points north, west, and south.

Those agreements evolved into the AP that today has 4,000 employees and delivers news around the clock to more than 130 countries and 1 billion readers, listeners and viewers.

The AP is justly proud of its history, as Walter Mears, a Pulitzer Prize-winning four-decade AP veteran, writes in an essay for the new book Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else (Chronicle Books):

No twenty-first century technology or marketplace revolution can alter one basic AP tradition: its devotion to accurate, objective news coverage. AP's imprint of accuracy and fairness is as vital in the murky world of online fact or fiction as it was long ago, when rival press lords bent the truth. Created to take advantage of the newly invented telegraph, AP has confronted all succeeding revolutions in news technology and the expectations born of them, including the rise of online, on-demand information. Still a newspaper-owned cooperative, still dedicated to communicating facts, AP has become an international news network for the new age.

But there is reason to doubt the AP's faithfulness to this tradition. The June 1, 2007 edition of the wire service's internal newsletter carried an article, reprinted on the journalism website, that declared in an introduction: "It's AP's goal this year (and henceforth) to make . . . accountability journalism a consistent theme in our coverage of public affairs, politics and government." The introduction defined "accountability journalism" as reporting on "whether government officials are doing the job for which they were elected and keeping the promises they make." Online political editor Ron Fournier wrote the main article, which began:

Katrina made a believer out of me. I had always known that The Associated Press played a role in holding public officials accountable, but it took a killer hurricane and an incompetent, arrogant government response to make me realize this is no mere role. It's an obligation, a liberating one at that.

A reporter, in the AP tradition, is a detached observer, a gatherer and conveyor of facts. So when he declares himself "a believer," it ought to raise eyebrows.

In fairness to Fournier, what he proclaims himself a believer in is ostensibly just a style of journalism, not a political cause. "We can be provocative without being partisan," he writes. "We can be truth-tellers without being editorial writers." But can they? Fournier offers several examples of his own work to show the kind of journalism he wants his colleagues to produce. He reports, you decide.

This is from September 2, 2005:

WASHINGTON (AP)--The Iraqi insurgency is in its last throes. The economy is booming. Anybody who leaks a CIA agent's identity will be fired. Add another piece of White House rhetoric that doesn't match the public's view of reality: Help is on the way, Gulf Coast.
Here, Fournier rehearses a list of anti-Bush complaints--Iraq, the economy, the Valerie Plame kerfuffle--before even getting to the day's news. He expresses strong opinions on all of them, though he evades responsibility for those opinions by attributing them to "the public's view of reality"--as if everyone in "the public" were in agreement. And on at least one of them, the White House's "view of reality" was demonstrably correct: The economy was booming. Real gross domestic product grew 3.3 percent in 2005, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

This is from a Fournier dispatch of September 12:

WASHINGTON (AP)--The fatally slow response to Hurricane Katrina unleashed a wave of anger that could transform people's expectations of government, the qualities they seek in political leaders and their views of America's class and racial divides. It's a huge opportunity that neither party seems poised to exploit.
The factual content of this paragraph is zero; it is entirely opinion and speculation. And despite the nod toward nonpartisanship--"that neither party seems poised to exploit"--the ideological bias is clear. "America's class and racial divides" loom much larger in the liberal imagination than in the minds of those who lean toward the center or the right.

And this is from March 2, 2006:

WASHINGTON (AP)--President Bush vowed, "We are fully prepared." Mike Brown [then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency] barked orders. Weather experts warned of a killer storm. The behind-the-scenes drama, captured on videotape as Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, confirmed Americans' suspicions of government leaders: They can run a good meeting, but little else.

Fournier was reporting real news, but why not let the facts speak for themselves? No doubt some Americans suspected that Bush administration officials "can run a good meeting, but little else," and had their suspicions confirmed by the video. But surely others thought more highly of the administration and were disappointed, or took an altogether more charitable view of the tape. What did Fournier add to the story by imposing his interpretation on it?

"Accountability journalism" seems to be catching on in the AP's campaign coverage. In a June 4, 2007 "analysis," Fournier took on the question of "authenticity" in politics. Although again adopting his trademark pox-on-both-houses pose--"if recent history is a guide, both [parties' presidential] fields will be bereft of authentic authenticity"--he seemed sympathetic to one candidate in particular:

It will be interesting to see what this skeptical electorate thinks of former Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat who has apologized for his 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq--and now wears his mea culpa as a badge of honor.

"He was right," Edwards said Sunday night, pointing to Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois who opposed the war from the start. "And I was wrong."

Edwards is breaking an unwritten rule in Washington to never to [sic] acknowledge misjudgment, one that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton treats as gospel. He hopes to make her pay for refusing to apologize for her vote on Iraq.

Couldn't Edwards's "mea culpa" be phony, an effort to pander to his party's far-left base? The possibility doesn't seem to have occurred to Fournier, who presents it instead as evidence of Edwards's honesty. But the AP didn't give the benefit of the doubt to Republican Fred Thompson. When Liz Sidoti filed a July 5 "analysis" of his nascent presidential campaign, it carried the headline "Thompson Lacking Substance"--a bald statement of opinion.

Far be it from this columnist to disparage opinion journalism, my own occupation. But there is a great deal to be said for the discipline of straight news reporting--of sticking to the facts and leaving it to readers to form their own opinions. If the AP abandons this tradition, it will be a tremendous loss to American journalism.

Next article: In Katrina's Wake (9/8/07)

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